The intrinsic and extrinsic values of plants

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Plant benefits are numerous – and they are a big driver of why customers choose specific plants.

by Courtney Llewellyn

You’ve probably heard customers waffling before when looking at a particular variety of vegetable, flower, fruit or tree. Is it a better fit for their soil or sun exposure? Or is it simply a better fit for their aesthetic? And how do you, the grower, figure out the best way to sell something to someone like that?

Dr. Bridget Behe, Ph.D., of the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University discussed “Plant Benefits or Features: Which Cue is More Effective?” in a Horticulture Research Institute (HRI) webinar earlier this year. Figuring out which cue your customers react to can help you plan your planting goals for next season.

Behe noted there are more than 100 consumer research projects about plants, but the difficulty is in narrowing down what growers should identify/report/claim/communicate about their value in retail settings. “Oftentimes the tag information is a big piece of it, but it needs to be a little bit more,” she said.

Search attributes help customers make a purchase, either online or in a retail space (think flower color, sun requirements, price, etc.), but experience attributes (the flavor of a pepper, the crunch of greens, how long ornamentals flower, etc.) are needed for them to really understand what they’re buying. Credence attributes, on the other hand, are the most difficult for customers to evaluate. They require intrinsic cues and need to rely on the seller to understand them – the production methods, drought tolerance, environmental benefits and so forth.

“Search attributes say what the plant is. Experience and credence explain what the plant does for me, the benefits,” Behe said. “The ‘whys’ are the real drivers of purchasing.”

The main thing to remember is customers respond to two cues: intrinsic cues (the things we may not “see”) and extrinsic cues (the things we can see, most especially the price). Customers need reasons to buy other than simply knowing what a certain plant is.

“We have found people find the information that they need very fast,” Behe noted. “Physiologically, what they want first – the plant type, the production method and the price – is the information they find first. How we position that information is critical.”

The amount of information provided that was actually read was also considered by Behe. Signage with low to moderate complexity lured in more customers, who were then more likely to buy. High complexity signage was linked to the likelihood of a purchase going down. You need to think of your customers when you structure your information so they get what they want but you also highlight some of the reasons why they should take a particular plant home. Consider focusing on the benefits versus focusing on the features, Behe suggested.

There is a caveat to that advice, however. When looking at the interaction of price and cue, different attributes need to be highlighted. For a low price, all you need to list is the price. For a moderate price, customers want to know features and benefits. If you’re charging a high price, you must communicate the plant’s benefits. Those benefits can be aesthetic, environmental, educational, emotional, physical or even social.

“People are connecting with people through plants – take advantage of those relationships,” Behe said. (Think of the self-described “plant moms” out there.) If you’re not sure what to share, the National Initiative for Consumer Horticulture (consumerhort.org) offers free infographics with #PlantsDoThat. Behe said they’re perfect for your website or for laminating and posting in your store. The graphics visually convey a lot of information.

An HRI survey conducted from July 24 – Aug. 21, 2020 investigated the relative importance of plant benefits, with 1,211 useful responses from Baby Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z. Some of the most notable reasons people bought plants were to alleviate boredom and for food security. However, “Boomers were less likely to feel boredom and feel food secure; Gen Z and Millennials were the opposite,” Behe said. Generational targeting matters!

Behe listed some good food security messages to share:

  • With an interest in plant-based diets, you can have a lot of control over what you eat and where it comes from.
  • You can’t get more local food than your back door/yard/porch.
  • Become your own farmer. Grow some of your own vegetables/fruits/herbs. We’ll help!
  • Great flavor and nutrition start at home. Grow your own produce.

“We create, communicate, deliver and exchange value for our customers by connecting with them on what they value,” Behe said. So which is more effective – features or benefits? “It’s that social benefit. We were surprised that was the one that had the biggest bang.”

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